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When a Heating Oil Tank Should Be Decommissioned

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While the majority of the U.S. – especially the West – relies on natural gas or electricity to heat its homes, some residences still use a heating oil system. Heating oil systems work through the following steps.

  1. Oil is stored in an underground heating oil tank (HOT).
  2. Oil is pumped from the heating oil tank to either a burner or furnace to create heat.
  3. The oil is turned into a fine mist that mixes with the air.
  4. This mixture is then ignited inside a combustion chamber.
  5. The resulting heat warms the air in your furnace or the water in your boiler, depending on the kind of heating oil system you have.

Heating oil systems were most popular in the 1970s. Since then, the number of people who rely on heating oil systems as their main source of heat has dropped nearly every year.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), about 5.3 million households used heating oil as their primary source for space heating in the winter of 2020 to 2021, and 85% of those households were located in the Northeast. Meanwhile, the West only accounted for 3% of the total residential heating oil sales in 2020 – the least of any U.S. region.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

However, just because heating oil systems aren’t commonly used in the West today doesn’t mean they weren’t popular in previous decades. In fact, if you own a home built between 1900 and 1985, there’s a good chance there is an old heating oil tank buried somewhere in your yard. 

As a result, there are a lot of heating oil tanks that remain underground even though they aren’t being used. Many homeowners may have an underground heating oil tank and not even know it.

Here, we’ll cover why it’s important to decommission old heating oil tanks – including ones that are currently in use – and how to go about the tank decommission process.

Why Decommission a Heating Oil Tank

Keeping an abandoned heating oil tank in your yard can cause big problems, such as:

  • Oil leaks that affect your soil and/or groundwater
  • Tank corrosion and failure
  • Malfunctions of parts associated with your heating oil tank, like hose connections, filters or worn-out fittings
  • Environmental citations
  • Well water contamination
  • Dead plantlife 
  • Risks from human exposure

If there’s a leak coming from your heating oil tank, it can add harmful heavy metals to the surrounding soil, impacting pets or wildlife. It can also contaminate sources of drinking water.

Estimates show that nearly 50% of the U.S. population and 99% of the U.S. rural population that relies on groundwater as its primary source of drinking water may be impacted by leaking underground storage tanks (USTs).

Even for a small oil leak, soil contamination typically lasts two to three decades. These problems can stem from heating oil tanks that are still being used or old tanks that were never properly decommissioned. Repairs may not be an option when a tank failure occurs. The same applies to above-ground heating oil tanks.

Unfortunately, not knowing about the presence of a heating oil tank in your yard won’t get you out of potential environmental violations if it’s found to be contaminating the local environment. These penalties can cost you thousands of dollars in oil cleanup costs, and that’s not including the cost of having the tank removed. 

That’s why it’s important to find out definitively whether there’s a heating oil tank on your property that needs to be decommissioned. This can be answered by having a residential tank scan (also called a residential tank sweep), which uses advanced technologies to locate underground storage tanks.

When to Decommission a UST

You’ve located an underground storage tank in your yard – now what? Does it really need to be removed?

There are a variety of reasons why you may want to schedule a heating oil tank decommission. 

  • Tank failure: The most obvious reason to decommission a tank is because it’s not working properly or is causing problems like those listed above. Potential warning signs that an underground storage tank is failing include dead vegetation, a constant oil smell and increased heating costs that can’t be otherwise explained.
  • Changing to a new heating system: If you decide to install a heat pump/exchanger or a natural gas heating system, you’ll want to decommission your heating oil tank to prevent it from causing headaches down the road.
  • Buying a new home or property: Oftentimes, a buyer (or even a seller) will be unaware of the presence of an abandoned heating oil tank on a property. This is a great time to have a residential tank scan done to make sure you don’t run into any surprises after closing.

Whatever the reason may be, the presence of underground heating oil tanks can’t simply be ignored. If you suspect your heating oil tank is failing, it’s crucial that you schedule a tank decommission right away before the problem gets worse.

How to Decommission a HOT

To decommission a heating oil tank means that it is either permanently closed by capping it, filling it with a foamy material or digging it out of the ground completely. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow.

  1. Call a qualified company (like Alpha Environmental) to make sure the process runs smoothly. There are certain requirements set forth by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that need to be closely followed during a tank decommission.
  2. Complete a tank sweep to find the tank’s exact location.
  3. Test the surrounding soil for contamination. This can be done through soil sampling. Soil sampling provides critical insight into whether the tank is leaking or corroding, how long it has been leaking, the type of oil that has contaminated the ground and how far the oil has spread.
  4. Develop a plan to remedy the situation based on the information that was gathered.
    1. If no soil contamination is found, it may be OK to decommission the heating oil tank in its place. This would mean having the tank cut open, cleaned, filled with a material that doesn’t react to other chemicals and permanently sealed.
    2. If contamination is detected and is severe enough, a tank decommission by removal may be the best option. Removing the tank from the ground entirely is also a good choice if there are plans to develop the land that is directly above the heating oil tank. This tank decommission process is similar to an in-place decommission, but instead of filling and leaving the tank, it is removed and recycled. However, let Alpha Environmental first perform risk-based assessments to provide you with recommendations on generic remedies.

Experienced Tank Experts in Portland, OR

A tank decommission requires a specific skill set and expertise if you want it done correctly. The professionals at Alpha Environmental follow a thorough step-by-step process that ensures requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Oregon DEQ are met.

Our team will help clean up any contaminated soil, decide on the best way to decommission your heating oil tank based on a risk assessment and decommission your tank following the plan that is developed. We’ll also register the tank with the DEQ if needed.

If you’re concerned your heating oil tank might be leaking or needs a decommission, or if you want to know whether a property has an underground storage tank, contact us to schedule a free estimate. If you have questions, we have answers at 503-292-5346.

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David D.
Lake Oswego, OR
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My wife and I experienced a hot water pipe busting in the crawlspace. It has been a total nightmare. However, Chris and his team provided expert quality care, with timeliness and the greatest degree of professionalism. I would HIGHLY recommend Alpha Enviornmental!
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Beaverton, OR
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Can’t say enough about Alpha Environmental! Their costumer service is 10/10, they have really good systems in place, responsive, and professional. The gals in the scheduling department are always so kind! As a real estate agent, I use Alpha’s services numerous times a year. Either it’s for Mold bids, oil tank decommissioning, radon etc. They always do a fantastic job! Thank you for all the work you do!